Friday, February 01, 2008

It Does Some Bodies Good

Low fat milk (left) is cheaper than high fat milk but can resembled powdered milk taste-wise. The milk on the right is "ESL" or "extended shelf life" milk and is supposed to last a long time. Most high fat milk has its fat content prominently displayed on the label, but you have to check nutrition information for the percentages on low fat (the one above is .7%).

As you approach the dairy case at one of our local markets, a little song plays which goes something like "three a day, three a day, ichi-nichi (everyday), san-kai (3 times)". Yes, part of the song is in English and the "three" is pronounced like "sree". This ditty is part of a campaign which extends to other countries which I'm sure is funded by the dairy manufacturers world-wide.

There are some people who are promoting the idea that dairy is very bad for you. Actually, there are a lot of people who say that for various reasons. One of the reasons is that cows are not treated especially well, even those that are milked and not slaughtered. Another is that not everyone responds well to milk products. I think others just want to make sure that any organized producers of anything who encourage you to consume something for health benefits should be taken to task as their motives are surely financial rather than related to the social good.

Without a doubt, there are some people who have issues with dairy products. From multiple sources, I've heard that 90% of Asian people are lactose intolerant, but Japanese people are tremendous fans of yogurt. Most of their cheese is processed and they don't drink milk in the ways that Western folks do as part of a regular diet, but I've rarely encoutered someone who didn't regularly eat or drink yogurt. In fact, yogurt drinks are all over the place in a variety of flavors and configurations.

Since hearing that 90% of Asians are lactose intolerant, I've asked students if they ever feel ill or experience any sort of discomfort after consuming milk products and they all look at me as if I had asked them if they ever spontaneously sprouted wings and flew. The idea that dairy products will make them feel bad just isn't on the radar, so I couldn't fathom what the information I was hearing again and again was based on as no one seemed to be experiencing lactose intolerance. Though I guess a genetic explanation is likely, I'm not sure a gene for lactose intolerance has been discovered and not all Asian people are intolerant.

At any rate, while researching milk, I learned some interesting points about the body and milk consumption which may explain why so many Asians are lactose intolerant yet do not experience discomfort while consuming dairy products. One thing I learned is that, after birth, the enzyme required to digest milk starts to slowly diminish unless you continue to consume milk. Essentially, this means that cultures which embrace milk as a part of their regular diet throughout their lives are far less likely to become lactose intolerant as continual ingestion of milk stops you from becoming so. Considering that Asians often do not drink milk regularly in the same fashion as some Western folks, it makes sense that they would gradually stop producing the enzyme that allows them to digest lactose.

I also learned something which may explain to some extent how my students, who fall within the whopping 90% of lactose intolerant Asian people, are consuming dairy without discomfort and that was that yogurt contains bacterial cultures which help digest lactose so it can be managed better by folks who are lactose intolerant.

One other point about milk in Japan is that it tastes different than milk in the U.S. because it is processed differently. In fact, it took quite awhile for my husband and I to get used to it. It seems thinner and more watery, though milk here tends to come in various high fat percentages (commonly from 1.0-4.4% with non-fat milk being relatively hard to find). I've read that lactose is water soluble and that Japan uses steam injection and infusion methods to process milk. This process heats the milk for a longer time and probably is part of the reason it tastes strange to Americans. I wonder if something in this process destroys or removes some of the lactose in Japanese milk, I must say that this is complete speculation on my part.


Shawn said...

Here I was, halfway through your article and all excited that I had a point I could make in the comments... but then you had to go and do your research and find out the answer for yourself! For shame!

I had never heard that yogurt bacteria help digest milk products before relatively recently. One thing to point out is that this is only the case with yogurt which contains "live cultures"; some labels (at least out here) list "Created with live cultures" or something to that effect, which in essence means that once the bacteria did their goodness, we pasteurized the crap out of them and they won't provide any lactose-related perks anymore.

mike said...

I have heard, too, that Asians have a big tendency to be lactose intolerant. I figured that it would be genetic, but like you stated, it could be due to the fact that they don't drink milk as much as we do in the west.

The high fat milk is similar to our "whole milk", being 3.25% fat here in the states. 1% and 2% are what they are, and skim is just cloudy, blue water.

You can get REAL milk straight from the cow at many farms. Our local farm ice cream shop, Young's Dairy in Xenia, uses straight-from-the-cow milk to make ice cream. It is absolutely delectable! You do, however, run risk of sickness from the milk because they don't pasteurize least they didn't a few years back.

Acidophilus milk is readily available in stores for those people that are lactose intolerant. It has an added culture to help with digestion of the lactose, and it is also apparently good for blood pressure.

Thank God I'm not lactose intolerant! All I can stand to drink is water and milk, and water can aggravate the lingering sores in my mouth from the radiation damage.

tornados28 said...

I thought lactose intolerant could not have any dairy product which includes yogurt. If they don't have stomach problems even though they think they are lactose intolerant, I think that means they are not lactose intolerant.

Or maybe I am just clueless.

Shari said...

Shawn: It's always nice to see a loony take the time to comment. ;-) Sorry that I stepped on your toes, but I'm a big believer in researching before I start running my mouth. That apparently puts me squarely in the minority among writers on the Internet as people tend to grasp any half-baked notion they hold to be true and forcefully assert it is reality. While I have no problems with half-baking and no-baking reality in the Carl sense (in fact, I applaud it!), I have issues with it here.

Almost all Japanese yogurt contains live cultures. That information is included on the label in katakana as "bifidus" in most cases.

Mike: I grew up in the heart of dairy producers and we used to drink milk that was essentially fresh from the cow all the time. At two different dairy farms, we used to take our own (clean) milk jugs to them and they would fill them from the vats the milk was collected in. Eventually, I think that practice ended because of sanitation concerns (with the jugs themselves).

I don't think that whole milk is a concept here since there are so many weird variations. Back home, the basics were skim, low, and whole, but there are so many differences in fat percentages that I can't imagine where "whole" begins and ends.

I have no idea how they get milk to be 4.4% fat as that seems higher than usual for whole milk. If I had to guess, I'd think part of the removal of moisture during the steam infusion processing is increased on certain types of milk so that it's got more fat remaining. The odd thing is that ESL milk is cheaper, but has the highest fat content of commonly available types of milk.

Thanks to both of you for commenting!

milton said...

Yogurt actually contains almost no lactose, the bacterial cultures consume it as they grow. An excellent reference work on the subject is "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee.

Shari said...

milton and tornados: Thanks for the head's up about yogurt. The study I read tested all sorts of milk products and mentioned that lactose intolerance didn't prove a problem because of the beneficial bacteria in it but failed to say that there is so little lactose that it wouldn't be an issue! Sometimes medical studies aren't as inclusive as would be nice for laymen as they don't tell you anything incidentally or beyond the scope of the studies results.